Faith schools

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Written by Russell Kaye

Related terms

Parochial schools, parish schools, Christian schools, faith education, Islamic education, (Roman) Catholic schools, voluntary aided schools, voluntary controlled schools.


Faith schools are schools which seek to provide an alternative to the state education system through the creation of communities which represent and provide instruction in one particular religious faith. They are most commonly found in countries where the education system, funded by the government, does not recognise one national religion, and are usually funded either by the religious organisations or through private fees paid by parents. In a smaller number of countries, faith schools are funded by the government as a state-run alternative to the regular school systems.


There has long been a strong relationship between the practice of religion and that of education. To be a member of a religious community often brings an obligation to bear witness and to pass on one’s faith to others.


During the 18th and 19th centuries, there was a growing awareness of the need to educate the population; the first parliamentary bill to propose this was in 1807. Education of the poor was, however, regarded as an act of charity, to be undertaken by the churches, with the Church of England planning for a school within every parish. Even the Education Act of 1870, which laid the foundations for state provision, concerned itself primarily with complementing rather than replacing the church education system. As successive governments began to take increasing responsibility for education, the Church of England schools remained, along with those run by the Roman Catholics and, occasionally, the Methodist church. They gradually became absorbed into the state education system; the churches continued to contribute to the costs of running the schools in order to retain control over staffing and the religious education curriculum. Approximately 25% of primary schools in England remain within the Church of England, with a further 10% Roman Catholic and a handful of others (predominantly Methodist).


Faith schools are most frequently established in countries where governmental legislation forbids the provision of denominational religious instruction within maintained schools. In the United States, for example, the Constitution establishes a separation between the Church and state. This has led to the founding of a significant number of private religious schools: 83% of private school students in the United States are educated in church schools (NCES 2002). In Canada, the government has traditionally subsidised Roman Catholic schools within the maintained sector, although this has created recent debate and controversy, and now varies provincially. Newfoundland and Quebec, for example, both withdrew state funding for Roman Catholic schools in 1995 (Lawton, 2001). Spain’s Roman Catholic schools, although officially private, are heavily subsidised by the Spanish Government and Church, and require minimal fees paid by parents (Purcell 2004). Specific faith schools tend to be less common in parts of world where the state system provides for the teaching of Religious Instruction. In some Western countries, such as Germany, religious instruction is provided through specialist classes in the mainstream sector. In many developing parts of the world, and in traditional Islamic countries, the whole education process continues to be directed by religious leaders or missionary groups.

Structures and Curriculum

The curriculum in faith schools for most subjects usually follows the either the national or local prescribed curriculum (in the case of schools receiving state funding), or the trends within private schools in the area (in the case of fee paying schools). Exceptions may be where the syllabus conflicts with the religious beliefs of the community, for example the refusal of some American schools to teach creationism. There is usually a greater amount of time spent on Religious Instruction (the introduction of children to the key teaching of the faith), and potentially less on Religious Education (learning about other faiths). Acts of worship take place on a regular basis. Faith schools will also attempt to maintain an ethos which is consistent with the beliefs of the community, often with formal discipline, and an emphasis on caring and charity works.

Recent Developments

Faith schools frequently cause controversy when debated as part of educational change. In the United Kingdom, the Green Paper of April 2001 called for an increase in the number of faith schools, particularly at secondary level (DFES 2001). This is predominantly due to over-subscription. There is international evidence of religious schools performing better in all curriculum subjects, along with heated debate as to why that should be the case (cf. Toynbee 2001, Levin 2004). There have been recent experiments to establish Muslim and Sikh secondary schools in areas such as West London and Birmingham (Miller 2002), which has led to accusations of segregation and the isolation of minority communities. In Northern Ireland, which has long maintained a tradition of having separate Catholic Maintained and state Controlled schools, there is now a move towards a more integrationist policy (Jackson 2004).


DFES (2001) Green Paper: Building on Success, (Visited 07-July-05)

Lawton, Stephen B. (2001) Education Finance and School Choice in the United States and Canada, occasional paper No17 for the National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education, Teachers College, Columbia University. (Visited 08-July-05)

Levin, Jesse (2004) Differences in Educational Production between Dutch Public and Religious Schools, occasional paper No93 for the National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education, Teachers College, Columbia University. (Visited 09-July-05)

Miller, Annabel (2002) Inside a Muslim School, The Tablet, 09/02/2002. (Visited 07-July-05 - you may be asked to register to access these articles)

NCES (2002) Private School Universe Survey 2001-2002, National Centre for Education Statistics, US. (Visited 09-July-05)

Purcell, Julius (2004) A Spanish Class War, The Tablet, 08/05/2004. (Visited 07-July-05 - you may be asked to register to access these articles)

Richardson, Norman (2004) Religious Education in Northern Ireland: Towards Mutual Respect? An advance country paper for the Oslo Coalition on Freedom of Religion and Belief, 2-5 September 2004. (Visited 08-July-05)

Toynbee, Polly (2001) Keep God out of class, The Guardian, Friday 9th November 2001.,5500,590352,00.html (Visited 09-July-05)

Useful links

The National Society for Promoting Religious Education (NATSOC)
NATSOC is an organisation which provides a focal point for all involved in the administration of Church of England schools within the United Kingdom, representing the views of the Church in government policy making; providing guidance on good practice; and maintaining a comprehensive archive (not online) of documents relating to the history of Church Education. (Visited 07-July-05)

Catholic Education Service (CES)
The CES represents the Bishops Conference of England and Wales in matters concerning Roman Catholic Education in the UK. Their web pages include practical guidance for Catholic Schools, reports and research. (Visited 08-July-05)

Know Britain – Education in England
A comprehensive account of the history of the British Education system, with particular reference to the role played within it by Church Schools. (Visited 09-July-05)

International Association for Religious Freedom (IARF)
This organisation maintains an overview of international practices in Religious Education and the relationship between religion and schools. It contains a series of academic papers. (Visited 09-July-05)

Religious Education Exchange Service (RE-XS)
A portal for all involved in Religious Education and the development of faith, mainly consisting of external links. (Visited 09-July-05)

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